Select Page

[intro]Sipho Kings and Sarah Wild have been reporting on different facets of climate change for most of their careers. Their book, South Africa’s Survival Guide to Climate Change, is ultimately a survival guide, which rests on the idea that we could possibly survive a changing climate. With temperatures climbing and sea levels rising, parts of South Africa are already well on their way to being uninhabitable and we need a plan.[/intro]

Every morning, there are people in South Africa who wake up and try to piece together the puzzle of climate change. That is their day job. Real people, working a nine-to-five job, paid for by the South African government. Not all countries can boast that sort of expertise or the fact that their government does not deny that climate change is happening (*cough* America *cough*). Every two years, the South African Academy of Science (ASSAF) presents a report to Cabinet on the state of climate change science and technology. Here are some of the highlights from the most recent report:

✺ South Africa spends about R400 million a year on climate change-related research and technology development, which has been growing at about 12% year-on-year (with inflation loitering at about 6%). This has mainly involved research and data collection, since South Africa struggles to bridge the innovation gap between an idea and a commercial product.

✺ Scientific output increased from 131 peer-reviewed journal articles or book chapters in 2005 to 596 a year in 2015. This is an annual increase of 16% compared to the average 5% in all other research topics, so it grew by more than three times as much as other fields.

✺ In 2006, South African researchers and institutions were collaborating with 40 other countries. By 2015, international collaboration had boomed, with our scientists working with 135 other countries.

✺ There are more than 30 institutions in South Africa working on climate change-related research, but the cash and research outputs are concentrated in five universities: the Universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, KwaZulu-Natal, the Witwatersrand, and Pretoria. Between 2005 and 2015, these five universities produced almost two-thirds of all climate change research.

✺ The University of Cape Town is the hands-down winner when it comes to producing climate change research (23% of the total), double its closest rival, Stellenbosch University (12%). The University of KwaZulu-Natal comes in third (10%), and the University of Pretoria and Wits University tie for fourth place (9% each).

✺ Climate change research is ‘cheap’ compared to other types of research. In South Africa in general, an investment of R1.8 million in the system (that is the institution, overheads, student training) produces one publication. Climate change research works out at about R670 000 per publication, almost a third of what is invested in other research.

✺ South African universities collectively produce 86% of all climate change research.

✺ This research is strongly skewed towards the ecological and biophysical sciences, rather than the social implications of a changing climate and how it is going to affect people and communities.

✺ However, there is a strong link in South Africa between the scientists and policy makers, with government engaging with scientists about their research and findings through seminars, workshops, and consensus studies, among others. This means that the science does find its way into government policy.

✺ Most of this research happens in universities, rather than in the private sector where technologies can be commercialised. There is a funding and expertise gap between an idea and its incarnation as a commercial product. What this means is that South Africa imports and adapts international technology, rather than developing its own, and often these

solutions are not a good fit for this particular place with its unique location, social challenges and cultural norms. This is part of a larger innovation problem in South Africa, where business is risk-averse and there is a dearth of venture capital. This is particularly true considering the country’s current economic straits. Government is trying to bridge this chasm between idea and invention through the Technology Innovation Agency and the Intellectual Property Rights From Publicly Financed Research and Development Act of 2008, also known as the IPR Act. The IPR Act, which established the National Intellectual Property Management Office, requires university academics to flag work that is possibly commercialisable for patenting. But the reality is that it is difficult for government, with its bureaucracy, to drive innovation.

This is a book extract of Sipho Kings and Sarah Wild’s South Africa’s Survival Guide to Climate Change. Find out more about the book here and here.